Judy Kahrl: A profile of an angry grandmother

Posted Tuesday, January 28, 2014 in Features

Judy Kahrl: A profile of an angry grandmother

By Avery Hunt, Special to New Maine Times

Every minute, somewhere in the world, a woman dies of a pregnancy-related trauma. By the time you read this, more than 20 women - mostly from third world countries - will be dead. For Judy Kahrl, this horror is something she refuses to swallow without doing something to make things better.

Judy, who might have been born with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth, instead was raised to become a passionate social activist and supporter of women’s reproductive health issues. In a sense, it was her birthright. Her father, Dr. Clarence Gamble (of the Proctors & Gambles), was imbued from an early age with a sense of social responsibility. While he could have been a playboy of the western world, Gamble instead proved to be a brilliant student, first at Princeton and then, at Harvard Medical School, graduating in cardiac medicine. He also, over time, became deeply involved in issues of birth control and women’s reproductive rights. He was particularly ardent about spreading this “Great Cause”, as he called it, to developing nations.

It was a contentious time for such thinking. (In fact, as Judy points out, it still is, even in Maine.)

One of Dr. Gamble’s good friends was Margaret Sanger, American pioneer in disseminating birth control information who was pilloried and even jailed for her efforts during the 1930’s. The good doctor, with the help of Sanger and other family planning advocates, began traveling the world to learn about family planning efforts or lack of them, putting his money where his zeal was.

Ceylon, Japan, India, Puerto Rico, Indonesia and Latin America were among his destinations. He tried working with the International Planned Parenthood Federation but… not one to suffer fools or red tape … was frustrated by their political dickering.

In the early ‘50’s, Dr. Gamble began quietly funding a new organization, Pathfinder, with a unique mission to deliver quality reproductive services and health information on a local level, using in-country nationals – a grass roots effort that has been highly successful. Today, Pathfinder International operates in more than 25 developing countries with a global staff of over 1,000 – 95 percent of whom are native to the regions in which they serve.

His motto was “every child a wanted child” - a philosophy that he instilled in his own four children. He taught Judy about family planning before she even knew about sex. As a young woman, she traveled with her father to Japan where he was helping launch their post-WWII family planning initiatives. Dr. Gamble oftendragged one or another of his kids on his global trips, and for Judy those were life-changing experiences.

She has been involved with Pathfinder for over 50 years, now serving as emeritus Board advisor, and has also served on a variety of non-profits, including La Leche League International, as well as local land conservation efforts since moving full-time to Maine in 1996.

Her credentials are impeccable: a Radcliffe degree; a Ph.D. in adult education/family counseling, with stints as a counselor, psychotherapist, photographer, and educator. While still at Radcliffe, she met and married Stan Kahrl, a Harvard grad student, who became an English professor at Ohio State. They settled in Columbus, where Judy had four children, aced grad school and held an assortment of jobs, mostly in education. “I had wanted my degree so I could counsel women on health issues in places like Africa, but with four kids, that was impossible.” So she focused her social responsibility energies on Pathfinder.

Judy’s Maine connection came through Stan, whose family had a house in the Georgetown area. For years, the Kahrl brood spent whole summers with Stan’s parents, a luxury afforded by Stan’s teaching schedule. In 1972, Judy and Stan bought their own saltwater farm in Arrowsic on the banks of the Kennebec, which Judy, now a widow, has renovated and put much of the surrounding pristine salt marsh into conservation.

While she’s reduced her time with Pathfinder, she still sometimes travels abroad to check out local efforts. Recently, she has focused her energies on a Maine-based group called Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights, or GRR, which Judy started as a small grass roots effort early last year. (Do you see a pattern here?)

The idea came to her in a sort of epiphany, after a visit to Mozambique where she was impressed by a group of village grandmothers who wore colorful T-shirts to trumpet their efforts to promote reproductive rights for women, most directly for their own daughters and granddaughters. She suddenly made the connection, that with all the commotion going on in Maine, such as the recent harassing protests of right-to-lifers in front of a legal abortion clinic in Portland, we needed some grandmothers right here at home to advocate for women’s health rights.

Right now. A book called Grandmother Power also fueled her inspiration. She came up with a bright yellow T-shirt design, and through the magic of email, recruited some friends who recruited some more friends, and voila!, 40 strong and growing, GRR was born. “We all remember when contraception was hard to get and abortion was illegal!” So far, this tiny group of grandmas is making a big impact. (“We are mostly feisty woman who’ve been in activist roles before.”)

They’ve bombarded the Maine legislature, held public forums and provided direct support to Planned Parenthood efforts, such as upholding a legal barrier around abortion clinics. But Judy is quick to say that such pro-choice actions are not necessarily pro-abortion; rather it’s about a woman’s right to make her own reproductive decisions.

A quiet woman with a springy walk, cropped sandy hair, freckles and an infectious grin, which belie her 70-plus years, Judy spearheads GRR with her trademark confidence and tireless energy, asserting: “You don’t mess with grandmothers; we know something about life!”

As the GRR movement grows (women in other states are interested in starting chapters in California and Ohio, for starters), the group is developing a mission statement, a template for action, and a website and other social mediums to help spread the word. Judy seems a bit amazed at how fast her grass roots concept has grown. “I am impressed with the spirit of GRR.... it is exciting to think that we can get in the fray and have an effect.”

Still, she quizzically ponders, “How can someone claim to be pro-life and not care about the health and well-being of all mothers and children? I just don’t get it.”

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